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Karate - It Isn't Just "One Style"

Updated on March 5, 2019
JS Karate Kids during the playground demonstration at Panaad Stadium in Bacolod City
JS Karate Kids during the playground demonstration at Panaad Stadium in Bacolod City | Source

K1 - Best of Andy Hug

There are many different styles of Karate

As martial arts continues to become a popular trend, you may want to enroll yourself and/or your children into a nearby martial arts school or one that is reasonably within your driving range.

You may want to enroll at a community program or an actual dojo (used interchangeably with gym or dojang). If you decided to enroll in a class that teaches “Karate,” there are things you must educate yourself and understand beforehand. In addition, you need to have questions to ask the instructor before or after class (do not interrupt the instructors during class).

First, you have to understand that Karate is not just one style. If you visit a school and the instructors simply say “Karate,” then they are obviously running a shady operation. Karate, itself, is an umbrella term and a meaning.

As an umbrella term, Karate envelops may styles.

Examples of Karate's styles are Shotokan, Shito-Ryu, Goju-Ryu (Okinawan & American), Wado-Ryu, Shorin-Ryu, Kyokushin Kai, Koei-Kan, Isshin-Ryu, Uechi-Ryu, Matsubayashi-Ryu, Kenpo, and more.

Here's a breakdown on the styles of Karate:

Shotokan Karate

Shotokan Karate, one of the four styles recognized by the WKF, was founded by Gichin Funakoshi and his son Gigo Funakoshi. This style is strongly responsible for the popularity of Karate and giving Karate the meaning of "empty hand."

Funakoshi rewrote the meaning of Karate to mean "empty hand" instead of "China hand" as it is called in Okinawa. This is a style of Karate that employs mainly "hard" or "go" techniques where you meet force with force.

Notable associated organizations are the Japanese Karate Association (JKA), International Traditional Karate Federation (ITKF), International Shotokan Karate Federation (ISKF), and Shotokan Karate of America.

Shotokan Karate does have a symbol of identification which is a tiger.

MMA fighter Lyoto Machida, martial arts actor Michael Jai White, and martial arts actor/choreographer Cyril Raffaeli have backgrounds in Shotokan.

Wado-Ryu Karate

Wado-Ryu Karate, “style of the harmonious way,” is founded by Hironori Ohtsuka. In application, Wado-Ryu emphasizes “harmony,” however, harmony can be misinterpreted as giving in.

This style of Karate is primarily a “soft” or “ju” style. Instead of using of utilizing go techniques, which is meeting force with force, Wado-Ryu emphasizes using “tai sabaki” which is about “whole body movement.”

When defending, you move along the attack instead of simply moving against the attack.

This employs a similar philosophy in Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Aikido.

This style is the result of Ohtsuka's training in Shotokan under Gichin Funakoshi, Motobu-Ryu under Motobu Choki, and Shindo Yoshin-Ryu Jiu-Jitsu under Tatsusaburo Nakayama. This all got combined into what is called Wado-Ryu Karate. The grappling aspect of Jiu-Jitsu plays a very role in the style as students get further into the ranks. For this reason, this is the one style of Karate that is classified as a style of Jiu-Jitsu.

It's identifying symbol is a crane or a crane with a fist.

Notable organizations of Wado-Ryu are the Japan Karate-do Federation Wadokai, the Wado-Ryu Karate-do Renmei, the Wado Kokusai Karate-do Renmei, and the US Eastern Wado-Kai Federation.

Wado-Ryu is perhaps one of the very few, if not the only style, to officially be classified as a style of Karate and as a style of Jiu-Jitsu/Jujutsu.

Goju-Ryu Karate

Goju-Ryu, “hard-soft style,” is a style of Karate founded by Chojun Miyagi. This style of Karate has influences from both the Okinawan and Chinese martial arts. Ultimately, Goju-Ryu draws heavily upon influences from the Chinese martial arts such as Fujian White Crane.

Eventually, it split into two styles: Okinawan Goju-Ryu and American Goju-Ryu with the latter being founded by Peter Urban.

Urban trained under Gogen Yamaguchi with the latter being responsible for spreading the style throughout Japan.

The name came up simply using both hard and soft techniques. Also, when you look at it from a different perspective, Goju can equate to “50.” Go in Japanese means “5” and “ju” in Japanese means “10.” When you say 11, you say “juichi.” When you say 20, you say “niju.”

This philosophy is supposed to be applied to life in general as you are going to have both soft and hard moments. You cannot be only soft or only hard when dealing with everyday life.

In regards to the identifying symbol, Yamaguchi came up with that the design that symbolizes Goju-Ryu as we know it today.

Notable organizations are the International Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate-do Federation and the Okinawan Karate-do Goju-Ryu Shobukan.

Goju-Ryu is one of the many styles trained in by Michael Jai White.

Shito-Ryu Karate

Shito-Ryu Karate is the last in the list of the "four major styles of Karate."

The style was founded by Kenwa Mabuni in 1934, combining the teachings from different Okinawan martial arts schools. According to Mushin-Kai International, Shito-Ryu is a combination of Shorin-Ryu and Shorei-Ryu.

The Shito-Ryu International Karate Do Kai's website explains that the style preserves most of the Shuri-Te and all of the original Naha-Te techniques.

Before the style was coined "Shito-Ryu," it was originally named "Hanko Ryu," translating into "half-hard style."

He studied Shuri-Te under Master Anko Itosu (whose students included Gichin Funakoshi of Shotokan, Choki Motobu of Motobu-Ryu, Choshin Chibana of Shorin-Ryu, and Chojun Miyagi of Goju-Ryu).

Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju-Ryu, was a friend to Mabuni and a catalyst that put him on the path to creating Shito-Ryu. Through Miyagi, Mabuni found Master Kanryo Higaonna and learned Naha-Te.

While Itosu and Higaonna were the two big influences on Miyagi, he studied under other teachers as well.

Tsukasa Mabuni, the daughter to Kenzo Mabuni and granddaughter to Kenwa Mabuni, currently leads the Shito-Ryu International Karate Do Kai as its third Soke.

Retired MMA fighter and current professional wrestler Seth Petruzelli studied Shito-Ryu.

Other Styles of Karate

You have other styles of Karate that exist in the world today:

Then, you have plenty of other styles of Karate with their respective lineages and identification symbols.

Other known Karate styles are Isshin-Ryu, Gosoku-Ryu, Kyokushin Kai, Seido, Enshin, Ashihara, Uechi-Ryu, Toon-Ryu, Kenpo, Shorin-Ryu, Matsubayashi-Ryu, and Koei-Kan.

The late-Andy Hug studied Kyokushin Kai and Seido.

The late-Sean Connery studied Kyokushin Kai.

MMA fighter Georges St. Pierre studied Kyokushin Kai.

Actor Hiroyuki Sanada studied Shorinji Kempo and Kyokushin Kai.

Actor Robert John Burke studied Matsubayashi-Ryu.

The late-Jim Kelly studied Shorin-Ryu.

MMA fighter Michelle Waterson studied American Freestyle Karate.

MMA fighter Liz Carmouche studied American Kenpo.

Katalin Zamiar, the MoCap for Kitana in "Mortal Kombat II," studied Goju-Ryu and Shorin-Ryu.

MMA fighter Sage Northcutt studied Kajukenbo and Shuri-Ryu.

It's important to know future founders will likely create their own styles of Karate from any combination of the existent styles.

The founder of Kyokushin Kai, Mas Oyama, trained in both Shotokan and Goju-Ryu.

Wado-Ryu can be classified as an offshoot of Shotokan while Matsubayashi-Ryu is one of the three branches of Shorin-Ryu.

Questions To Ask Karate Instructors

As a meaning, Karate is defined as “empty hand.” In this respect, anything that uses empty-handed techniques can be classified as Karate.

Here are a few questions that you need to ask the master or assistant instructors at the school or community program:

What style of Karate are you teaching?

The master instructor should already give you an explanation of what style the school or program teaches. You should get a simple answer of something like: Wado-Ryu, Shotokan, Matsubayashi-Ryu, or something else. In the case of Goju-Ryu, ask if the school teaches “American” or “Okinawan” as they are two different styles.

If none of the instructors can give a straight answer, then you shouldn't bother joining that school. With regards to community programs, talk to the supervisors of the community center as they should have the answers. In most cases, supervisors and other employees do background checks on instructors to teach at such programs.

Also, ask the instructors on the lineage of the style the school teaches.

They should be able to give you a brief history.

Keep in mind that there are constantly new styles of martial arts, let alone Karate, that are created. Even so, the style is going to have a history behind it.

If instructors cannot offer you a history and lineage behind the Karate style, then the school's highly likely not legit.

What organization(s) does your school fall under?

The World Karate Federation currently recognizes four styles of Karate: Shotokan, Wado-Ryu, Goju-Ryu, and Shito-Ryu. These four are the major and widely recognized styles of Karate. The World Union of Karate-do Federations (WUKF) recognizes those four styles and the following styles: Shorin-Ryu, Uechi-Ryu, Kyokushin Kai, and Budokan.

Even if there are styles of Karate not recognized by these organizations, those styles are regulated by their respective organizations. One example of a governing body is the Okinawa Isshin-Ryu Karate Kobudo Association (OIKKA) which is a governing body of Isshin-Ryu Karate. There is going to be a governing body for some style of Karate if there are enough schools that teach it.

If the school of Karate does not fall under any governing body, don't jump the gun and turn it down just yet. Keep asking those questions. The school might not be big enough to warrant having a governing body; in time, a governing body could be created if the style is spread far enough.

Knowing what style of Karate the school teaches is very important for a number of reasons. This is in case of leaving and having to move somewhere else and you want to continue your education. You could be training at a Shorin-Ryu school and move somewhere else and start training at a Goju-Ryu school. The two styles of Karate are different and you may have to start back at white belt again depending on the school's policies.

What are your certifications?

When entering the martial arts school, you should ask the instructors about their certifications. Ultimately, the master instructors have their certifications out in the open where everybody can see or in their office (the latter if there's not enough space to put the certifications in the open). In the case of a community program, the supervisors will do a background check on the instructors first before allowing them to start teaching classes at the community centers.

If the master instructor gets defensive or evasive, then that's a sign the school isn't legit. Before an instructors can open their own school, they have to reach a certain Dan rank and get permission from their master.


The case of Karate schools that teach Tae Kwon Do or Tang Soo Do

If the Karate school teaches Tae Kwon Do, there are very things you need to understand first before making your decision on whether or not to join the school.

Tae Kwon Do, which is a Korean martial art, can be classified as a style of Karate. Tae Kwon Do and Tang Soo Do are synonymous with “Korean Karate.” This is due to the history that Japan and Korea (before country split into North and South Korea) had with each other. During the early 20th century, Korea was colonized by Japan as a means of forced assimilation. Many styles indigenous to Korea became extinct as Koreans were prohibited from practicing their own styles.

A handful of Koreans did train under Japanese instructors. Mas Oyama, a Zainchi Korean, was one of those Koreans. Oyama is known as the founder of Kyokushin Kai Karate. Tae Kwon Do, in the past, has its origins in Shotokan Karate.

If the Karate school teaches Tae Kwon Do, then it has to be affiliated with either the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) or the World Taekwondo Federation/Kukkiwon Federation (WTF) with the latter being under the umbrella of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The thing about Tae Kwon Do is that it's a brand name. If the school teaches Tae Kwon Do, the master instructor needs to get permission first from his/her instructor and/or have a certain Dan rank. With the case of the WTF, one has to reach the rank of 4th Dan.

There are cases of illegitimate Karate schools in which instructors studied styles such as Tae Kwon Do but left after getting a 1st or 2nd Dan and opening their own school without permission from their masters and the governing bodies. You can tell if they don't give you a straight answer. Because Karate is defined as "empty hand," these illegitimate "masters" exploit that loophole. Since they don't have legal permission to be teaching styles like Tae Kwon Do or something else, they go ahead and open a school and call it "Karate."


With everything said, it is very important to understand that Karate isn't just a style. If a school that claims to teach Karate and simply says “Karate” or “Karate is Karate,” then that school is far from legit. Knowing that there are many different styles of Karate in existence saves you from investing your time and money.

Even if the school teaches something like Shotokan or Wado-Ryu, they should have their certifications and credentials on hand. By knowing about the different styles of Karate, you better educate and prepare yourself before joining that school.

There are kata that are practiced in multiple schools of Karate; but, they are usually practiced differently. This is something to keep in mind if you find yourself studying more than one style of Karate.

Karate isn't “just Karate.”


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